Here To Stay: Best Masks to Protect Against COVID Variants and Beyond
We get it. No one really wants to wear a mask. They do, however, come in handy on those days you have coffee breath and are out of mints. Heck, they even help on mornings you might not have enough time for a full face of makeup.
A year into the pandemic, it’s been tough to get used to this new mask-wearing “normal,” but it definitely has some benefits.
The biggest of all being: wearing a mask could save your life.
As covid fatigue takes its toll and resistance to masking up persists, it is important to understand why we need quality masks on everyone now more than ever. This includes recognizing that mask wearing is the safety precaution that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
COVID Variants and the Fight to Stay Protected
What is a variant? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), viruses constantly change via mutation. It is expected that variants of a virus will appear over time. Some disappear and some persist. In the case of the coronavirus, scientists are monitoring changes to the crown-like spikes on the surface of the virus.
There are now seven new highly-contagious COVID-19 variants that have been found across the US. Whether or not they are more virulent than the original strain is up for debate, but the fact that these mutations exist is scary enough.
We know a bit more about some international variants that have traveled to the US. Most notable, the UK strain is proven to be significantly more infectious. It also spreads more rapidly and, as of January 2021, it was reported to be more fatal.
The CDC maintains that the best ways to stay protected from all versions of the virus are to wear a mask, socially distance and wash your hands.
The current vaccines available should be effective against variants. Still, CNBC reports that scientists are working on “tweaking their recipes,” using the flu shot and its necessary updates as a model.
COVID-19 Vaccines are Not the End of Masks -- Here’s Why
According to physician and biodefense expert Dr. Mark Kortepeter, we won’t be able to stop wearing masks anytime soon. In his article for Forbes, he cites 5 reasons we will need to continue masking up even as vaccine distribution is underway.
Vaccinating everyone is not going to happen overnight. It will likely take several months.
Because it will be impossible to know who is vaccinated while out in public, it is imperative that you continue to protect yourself.
Until we have more data, you cannot assume the effectiveness of the vaccine. Not only do you have to worry that people may still get sick post-vaccine, but there is the possibility that vaccinated individuals will still be able to carry and transmit the virus.
Only time will tell if vaccines offer long-term protection without additional booster shots.
People have become re-infected with different virus strains. As travel opens up, it is not known with certainty how exposure to new variants will affect vaccinated individuals.
Marybeth Sexton, an assistant professor of infectious diseases at Atlanta’s Emory University School of Medicine, believes that we “should be prepared to wear masks for the foreseeable future, probably for the next year, certainly into that third quarter of 2021 when they expect to really be able to vaccinate large numbers of the general public.”
Many experts, however, believe the mask wearing trend will become a social norm, something that continues as a part of everyday life for a majority of people.
Shan Soe-Lin, Ph.D., is a lecturer in global affairs at Yale University and a trained epidemiologist. “It’s going to be really hard for people to tell apart who has been vaccinated, who hasn’t, and who just isn’t wearing a mask because they don’t want to.”
Dr. Patrick Kachur, a professor at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York City, can imagine a world in which masking up is a periodic practice by the public. If the coronavirus evolves to need a new vaccine each year, much like the flu, wearing masks may become a seasonal necessity.
It would additionally make sense then that masking might become commonly accepted as a means for personal defense during cold and flu season.
Dr. Colleen Kraft, associate chief medical officer at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, likes this idea: "That would be something, as an infectious disease physician, that I would be very excited about. We are learning, for better or for worse, about things such as how to protect ourselves, how to not come to work if we're sick, how to wear protective equipment when others are sick or when we're sick ourselves.”
Kraft continues, “The masks are really about source control and about protecting ourselves, so I definitely think we will see more masking when people don't feel well ... And that would be a good thing."
The Most Effective Masks Against COVID Variants Have These Four Components
With COVID variants a serious threat, public health officials are now recommending that you double up or upgrade masks for better protection.
Doubling up on masks means you wear a disposable surgical mask under a cloth mask. Essentially, this helps to provide a more secure fit around the face and assist in better filtration.
There are drawbacks to doubling up on masks, however. Layers that are not secured to one another can shift around and obstruct vision.
Also, wearing two masks means contending with four ear loops. This means added pressure behind the ears which can be uncomfortable for long periods of time.
And disposable masks are meant to be discarded. You are thus creating waste and adding a recurring expense to your face mask routine.
Upgrading your mask, then, is the most comfortable, eco-friendly and affordable option for confident defense. The most effective quality masks have the following four components:
MULTIPLE LAYERS The CDC states that you should be wearing a face mask with multiple layers. This is why scarves and bandanas are not suitable substitutes for face coverings. A single layer of fabric is not enough protection against virus particles.
FILTERS Joel Burken, Ph.D., the chair of the department of civil, architectural and environment engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology states, “A mask that is fitted well and [allows airflow to go] through the filter material is important so that the air we breathe does not bypass the filter.” He goes on to say that “any filter is better than no filter” in order to catch more viral particles than cotton alone. Coronavirus particles have been measured to be as small as 70 nanometers. Regular fabrics are not efficient in stopping particles smaller than 400nm.
QUALITY FABRICS Technology has provided us with several ways to create fabrics that have antiviral and antibacterial properties. In addition, reusable masks must be durable and washable without losing any structural integrity.
OPTIMAL FIT Masks that are equipped with features like adjustable ear loops to create a snug fit are preferable to those that might gap or slip.
Luckily, there are masks on the market that check all the boxes above. GuardeX’s Anti-Viral/Anti-Bacterial Face Mask with ProteX Filters is a mask option that combines two layers of breathable fabric with specialty enhanced protection. A surgical-grade, replaceable filter insert provides 95% filtration efficiency. Moisture-wicking, it is also 40% lighter than comparable masks on the market. Lastly, optifit earloops curate comfort and a custom fit.
Masking Up Responsibly to Save Ourselves, Our Neighbors, Our World
Above we touched on the environmental implications of disposable surgical masks. Made of a non-woven fabric, liquid-resistant and plastic-based, these masks can live for a long time in landfills and oceans after they are discarded.
Gary Stokes, founder and director of Hong Kong-based environmental NGO OceansAsia, makes the following point: “When you suddenly have a population of 7 million people wearing one to two masks per day, the amount of trash generated is going to be substantial.”
Animals could mistake the garbage for food, resulting in entanglement, choking, ingestion and death.
Improper disposal could lead to the infection of others by droplets that remain on the masks. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), these particles can survive for up to one week. People who encounter used masks in public spaces are vulnerable to not only the coronavirus but also meningitis and Hepatitis B and C.
To understand the scope of waste production, WuHan, China has been at the epicentre of the pandemic and has a population of 11 million people. In a single day in February of 2021, the city is reported to have generated 200 tons of clinical trash. This is four times the amount they are able to incinerate on a daily basis.
A single mask can produce millions of microplastics that latch onto bacteria and chemicals and these particles inevitably work their way up the food chain. At the top, the potential for human consumption is a real risk.
If masks are in fact going to be a part of our lives indefinitely, it makes sense that we need to start addressing this environmental impact now.
This is further support for the investment in quality face coverings that are reusable.
Betty Winkworth, the Co-Chair of Mankato Zero Waste, stands behind reusable quality masks as the go-to protective measure we should all be taking: “A reusable mask is a great option because you can reuse it, you can wash it and rewear it again, and it doesn’t end up in the waste stream.”
She also suggests purchasing two reusable options at a time so that you can always have a spare on hand.
Mask Up and Mask On
To close out his article for Forbes, Dr. Kortepeter states, “Taking your mask off too early is like playing Russian roulette, depending on who you are hanging out with and what activities you are doing…Only after the vaccines roll out will we see whether and how quickly infection spread declines and when we can stop wearing masks. Until then, we mask on.”
Tomorrow is full of uncertainty, but it feels good to reclaim some control over that which will always be out of our hands.
So we mask up, we mask on, and we move forward into the future...safely.